As Fairfax County makes progress toward embracing solar energy, some local environmental advocates have turned their sights to a new front in the battle against climate change.
The budding Fairfax County chapter of the national advocacy network Mothers Out Front introduced itself to the larger community on Aug. 20 at Patrick Henry Library in Vienna by launching a Clean Buses for Kids campaign to bring electric buses to Fairfax County Public Schools.
“We felt like it was a great way to do something concrete and make a difference in our local area,” Mothers Out Front Fairfax County co-founder Bobby Monacella said. “…Fairfax can make a really big difference if we switch to electric school buses.”
The mother of two current FCPS students, Monacella has been active in the local environmental movement for years and even passed her passion for the cause down to her daughter, Katie, a James Madison High School junior who works with the youth climate group Sunrise Movement both locally and nationally.
Monacella often heard from other mothers that, while they care about environmental issues, they did not have the time to get involved.
A possible solution presented itself in May when fellow mother and advocate Julie Kimmel, the co-founder and co-chair of the grassroots organization 350 Fairfax, suggested that they start a chapter of Mothers Out Front, which was looking to expand its presence in Northern Virginia.
Started in Massachusetts in 2013, Mothers Out Front is specifically interested in organizing mothers to advocate for transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy in order to “ensure a livable climate for all children.”
The group has expanded in the past six years with active teams in Alabama, California, Ohio, Colorado, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, Virginia, and Washington state. It also has a military mothers task force for people who are active duty, retired, or a military spouse.
As the mother of a 4-year-old who will start kindergarten in the fall of 2020, Kimmel says she feels a particular sense of urgency when it comes to climate issues as she contemplates what kind of world her daughter will live in by the time she reaches high school.
A report published by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in October 2018 determined that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius instead of 2 degrees is critical for avoiding the most extreme impacts of climate change, where the Earth’s climate systems undergo significant shifts due to heating caused predominantly by human-produced greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the U.N. report, researchers found that global carbon dioxide emissions need to drop by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero, meaning that remaining emissions would be canceled out by removing the gas from the atmosphere, by 2050 in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.
Reaching those goals will require “unprecedented changes” in every aspect of society, from land and urban development to the economy and transportation, according to the IPCC.
Environmental advocates point to heat waves and flooding that struck the U.S. this summer, along with rapidly melting ice in Greenland and other Arctic locations, as evidence that the time to implement changes is running out with the effects of climate change becoming more apparent around the globe.
“By the time my little girl is in high school, and that's only going to be about 10 years from now, these storms could be catastrophic,” Kimmel said, referencing a downpour that hit Fairfax County just as the Clean Buses for Kids campaign launched on Tuesday. “As her mom, I'm really worried about what could happen and what kind of future she might have.”
Converting Fairfax County’s school bus fleet to electric will not singlehandedly solve the climate crisis, but the move would still be a meaningful step toward making the county a sustainable, healthier place to live, Mothers Out Front Fairfax County says.
With 1,625 school buses that carry more than 141,000 students daily, Fairfax County Public Schools boasts the second largest school bus fleet in the U.S., falling behind only New York City in the number of students transported by school bus.
While Fairfax County has a hybrid fleet of 121 vehicles that includes five plug-in hybrids and one heavy-duty hybrid-electric truck, FCPS only has one plug-in hybrid-electric school bus. The rest of the fleet runs on diesel gasoline.
Looking at both school and government operations, Fairfax County maintains approximately 5,900 vehicles and purchases approximately 10.3 million gallons of diesel and unleaded fuel annually, enough to fill 15.6 Olympic-sized swimming pools every year, according to the county.
Children who ride diesel school buses are exposed to five to 15 times more air toxins than the rest of the population, leading to health issues like asthma, bronchitis, and pneumonia, Mothers Out Front Fairfax County says.
Since they have no exhaust, electric buses could reduce carbon emissions by as much as 40 percent. Transitioning would also save money for Fairfax County long-term, because electric vehicles have lower maintenance and fuel costs than diesel vehicles, Kimmel says.
However, the upfront cost of electric buses is currently three times higher than that of diesel buses, presenting an initial challenge to a full-scale conversion, according to Pat Hynes, who represents Hunter Mill District on the Fairfax County School Board.
“We cannot, as a public entity, go out and just start spending three times as much for buses,” Hynes said. “Even though the maintenance later is less, even though we will be spending less on fuel, that upfront cost is a significant barrier for the school system.”
Hynes has been a leading advocate for action on climate issues on the school board since she was first elected in 2011, and she represents the board, along with Providence District Representative Dalia Palchik, on the Joint Environmental Task Force that the school board formed with the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on Apr. 2.
Designed to help the county government and school system collaborate on initiatives related to energy, climate, and the environment, the task force known as the JET has two members each from the school board and the Board of Supervisors as well as students, environmental activists, and representatives from the energy, business, and higher education sectors.
Fairfax County announced on Monday that the JET will hold its inaugural meeting on Sept. 3 at 4:30 p.m. in the Mason District Governmental Center in Annandale.
Hynes believes Fairfax County needs to take an “aggressive” approach to transition its vehicle fleet to electric power, but some creativity will be necessary to find ways to reduce the burden of the upfront costs on the county.
One option that has been modeled elsewhere in the U.S. is for the local government to partner with local utilities, which would assist with expenses in exchange for acquiring new customers as well as a “battery farm” where the buses return energy back to the power grid when not in use.
“We literally have hundreds of buses parked overnight and sometimes for days on end in the summer, relatively idle,” Hynes said. “That is something that utilities are increasingly interested in using as well. So, it's a win-win-win, but we really need it to happen [now].”
Converting to electric vehicles is one part of Fairfax County’s plans to become more energy efficient and environmentally friendly.
Adopted by the Board of Supervisors on July 10, 2018, the Fairfax County Operational Energy Strategy lays out goals and actions that the county intends to take in areas ranging from energy and water use to green building and waste management.
The county government and FCPS jointly issued a request for proposals on June 6 to solicit bids for a solar power purchase agreement, a financial arrangement where a developer provides a solar energy system at little to no cost for the customer, who then buys power from the provider at a fixed rate.
The RFP lists approximately 130 eligible facilities, including Fairfax County Park Authority and Redevelopment and Housing Authority sites, and it will close on Aug. 29 at 2:00 p.m.
While the question of whether to convert FCPS to electric buses is a local issue, Del. Mark Keam (D-35th) spoke at Mothers Out Front’s Clean Buses for Kids campaign launch to share actions that state legislators can take to support electric vehicle adoption efforts.
Virginia has seen more automobile sales in recent years to counter declines in revenue from the state’s gas tax, but only about 0.5 percent of the cars sold are electric vehicles, according to Keam.
As a member of the Virginia House Agriculture, Chesapeake, and Natural Resources committee, which handles energy and environmental regulations, Keam hopes to find ways for the General Assembly to establish incentives that encourage people to purchase clean-energy vehicles and invest in a more comprehensive infrastructure for electric vehicles, including charging stations.
“Today is just the first day of this campaign, but keep in mind, this campaign is not a narrow silo campaign of just [electric vehicles],” Keam said. “This is a larger conversation about where we need to go as a state, as a nation, as a world.”